These concern plans to allow ex-prisoners onto the proposed 19 District Policing Partnerships and to give Belfast four separate DPPs to cover North Belfast, West Belfast, South Belfast and East Belfast. Critics on the Unionist side say this is tantamount to handing over the DPPs to paramilitary control.
Among the other proposals announced by Paul Murphy, Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary of state, are moves to strengthen the role of both the ombudsman and the Policing Board in overseeing police conduct.
The SDLP and Sinn Fein have expressed disappointment at the published version of the British government’s detailed proposals on policing reform.
Both parties said the proposals do not fully measure up to what is needed for a fully accountable policing service. Sinn Fein’s criticisms were the harsher. It argued for stronger powers for the Policing Board and ombudsman.
The draft has been published in two documents, with the clauses removing the disqualification of ex-prisoners from the local policing boards in a separate text.
“The first set of clauses, which will form the basis of the bill itself, reflects . . . discussions about these issues held at Weston Park and the implementation review afterward,” Murphy said in announcing the proposals. “The second text revised situations where we looked at these things separately.”
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness said he believed it would be possible “to come to a resolution of all of these difficulties if the will is there” over the next four months. He added that Sinn Fein is still not satisfied that the proposals fully implemented the Patten proposals, on which the program of change to policing was based.
Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, said the party is still demanding what the 1998 Good Friday agreement promised: representation, accountability, freedom from partisan political control, a human rights ethos, and a civic rather than paramilitary nature.
“We would have liked the Patten recommendations to go further,” he said. “But we believe that Patten, implemented in full, could provide a minimum threshold from which to achieve acceptable policing.
“These changes were hard won but they still fall short of Patten in key areas. Sinn Fein will not, therefore, be nominating for the Policing Board.”
The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, was likewise dissatisfied with the proposals, calling them “highly contentious” and “very disturbing.” He said he believes policing will fail in Belfast if there are four boards in the city. Unionists have for long argued against dividing Belfast for policing purposes, believing that in the north and west, republican ex-prisoners would play a significant role.
The UUP voted unanimously at its last ruling council meeting that if the change was made, they would withdraw from the Policing Board.
SDLP leader Mark Durkan said the new draft policing legislation fell short of commitments made in July 2001 and the subsequent revised implementation plan. He said 12 of 14 commitments were met, but that his party has a number of misgivings about other issues. These include the powers of the police ombudsman and the Policing Board. “They touch fundamentally on issues of accountability and openness,” he said.
The Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party said the proposals amounted to “the greatest constitutional calamity that we have ever faced.”
He said: “We were presented by the minister with two bills. One is the British Government bill and the other is the IRA/Sinn Fein bill and they are going to marry them together. So we don’t have Dublin rule now. We have Gerry Adams rule. All the conditions to keep criminals off these boards are going to be lifted.”
Meanwhile, the main political parties will hold another round of talks this week in an attempt to resolve the crisis in the political process. An agenda is being drawn up by the British and Irish governments, but the parties will be free to add other items.
Initial talks in Belfast last Thursday were described by sources as “frank and useful. “They were chaired by Murphy, and the Irish minister for foreign affairs, Brian Cowen.
All the pro-agreement parties attended, but Paisley’s DUP and the smaller anti-agreement unionist parties boycotted the event.